We don't often review books at TechCrunch, let alone fiction, but sometimes a work comes along that is just so carefully tuned to the ecosystem we cover that it justifies a quick post. And so here we have "Exadelic," a sci-fi novel by erstwhile TC contributor Jon Evans, who does his level best to match the reference density of "Ready Player One" in the Bay Area tech community, but fortunately also sets his sights a bit higher than that.
Now, let us first admit that this is not a comparison that is entirely complimentary. Ernest Cline's breakout hit was rich in reference but deficient in other ways, though perhaps its biggest problem was its most ardent proponents, who could not perceive how narrowly the book was tailored to their life experience and how that may render the experience hollow for others.
So if "Ready Player One but Silicon Valley" sounds like layering horror upon horror, that's understandable — and in a way it's accurate. But while "Exadelic" is certainly liberal with its name-dropping and nostalgia well beyond the point of establishing the setting, the plot quickly outgrows its early reliance on insidery nods and winks.
At the risk of spoiling just a little more than you'd find on the dust jacket, imagine if you and your group of friends found yourselves central to an AI-driven deep tech conspiracy that may define the fate of the planet. It's not the most original premise, but believe me when I say the scope does expand continuously and unexpectedly.
The early chapters play out like a potboiler techno-thriller — a tech exec has to survive by his limited wits after being targeted by a rogue AI — and frankly I was afraid it would continue that way. Fortunately the plot starts taking turns early and never really stops, allowing Evans to exert his imagination much more effectively.
To say much more would rob the prospective reader of the pleasures of a twisty book rooted deeply in today's technological and ethical zeitgeist. Out of control AI, unscrupulous VCs and questioning the nature of reality guide the plot — in other words, the same concepts you'd find in any week of reporting here at TechCrunch. There's even a touch of the occult!
(It must be mentioned that sexual assault of a kind is central to a part of the book, something in retrospect I feel didn't have to be that way, even if it's sort of an ecstatic-philosophy reference.)
And although I think "Exadelic" is a great book to take with you to a flight or beach, I think where it falls down is in its over-reliance on the Bay Area-tech-heyday zeitgeist. This is a merit as well — it is based in Evans's obvious familiarity with the startup, tech and investment worlds, not to mention turn of the century San Francisco, all things that many readers will recognize and appreciate.
But there is a certain solipsism inherent to the process of extrapolating such an expansive story from what amounts to a single moment and perspective. Like a science fiction work of the '60s that imagines a future extrapolated from tube televisions and analog computing, the vision seems bounded by the technology and attitudes of today. Imagine having a computer in the year 3000 rely on a mouse and keyboard — it jars as being out of sync with the imagination on display elsewhere.
Of course many classic works of sci-fi transcend this, but "Exadelic" seems content to be a product of its time, finding value in imaginatively mixing and matching these concepts to form an original permutation, if not an original combination. If you can tolerate a bit of nostalgia and a cypher of a main character (his companions are far more interesting), "Exadelic" is a fun ride.